Often when people die, we get sentimental and call them a role model, a hero or a legend, even though that may not always be strictly true. In the case of Bill Russell however, it is all true and to that list you can add political activist.
I will talk about Bill Russell and how he has influenced me over the years. It was at a time that was very different from now.
It was Black Converse or Nothing
I included a photograph of Bill Russell’s and Wilt Chamberlain’s Cons from the mid-1960s here to begin to illustrate what a different time it was then compared to now. If you played basketball in those days, you wore Converse. There was no other brand of sneakers available.
I also wore black Converse lowtops on the basketball court until I twisted my ankle badly and switched to Converse hi-tops, always black, except later, I had a pair of white Cons for school basketball games.
Bill Russell as a role Model
If you are talking about possible role models in sport or entertainment at that time, there were not that many non-white players in the NBA (National Basketball Association). There were almost no Black faces on American television or films. I was very interested in film at the time. There were no Black film directors.
In sports you had names like Jim Brown in football, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente in baseball, two of my personal favorites. But I was surprised to learn just how many people have used Bill Russell’s behavior on the basketball court as a model for their own personal lives. The actor, Samuel L. Jackson was one such person, I was another.
Growing up in Boston when I did, I grew up with Bill Russell. What I mean to say is, he played his entire professional career for the Boston Celtics basketball team as I was growing up. I could see him play live, watch him all the time on TV, listen to him speak on the news, hear stories from people who knew him and so on.
I saw Bill Russell as an innovator and in my opinion, the most important player in a professional league where many people did not want a Black man to succeed, the NBA. I saw him as an important political activist in a world that did not want a Black person to be a political activist. I saw him as a very successful athlete and a dignified and articulate person in a town, Boston, that did not seem to celebrate the success, and tried to deny the dignity, of Black people.
Yeah, I wanted to be like Bill Russell. So, as I child, I started to watch him closely to try to figure out how he did what he did.
Bill Russell On the basketball court
What did he do on the basketball court? First of all, Bill Russell regularly beat Wilt Chamberlain. Russell won everywhere he played. He won two National Championships as a college player at The University of San Francisco, a school that won nothing before he arrived.
He won a gold medal at the only Olympic Games he appeared in. He won 11 Championships in 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics making him the winningest team player of all-time. Michael Jordan won 6 Championships in 15 years. LeBron James has won 4.
What impressed me the most about Bill Russell the basketball player was the power of his mind, how intelligently he played, how he intimidated his opponents in a simple, almost quiet way and at the same time, the dignity that he brought onto the court. Even while playing in Boston, one of the most racist cities, certainly, in the north of America at that time.
When Russell started playing in the mid-1950s he was told NOT to jump by his coach (yeah, I know). But Russell had the idea to make defense an offense. This is something that he started in college and continued during his professional career. It was a revolutionary idea.
People were not concentrating on shot blocking before Bill Russell and his idea was to try to always block the opponents shot in the direction of one of his teammates so that they could start a fast-break and score an easy 2 points. He did the same with rebounds. As professional Russell averaged 22 rebounds per game and normally 10–12 blocked shots. They didn’t officially count blocked shots when he played, but this is what has been estimated.
Basketball and me? Can we talk about baseball?
Basketball for me as a young player meant 3 on 3 half-court on an outside blacktop basketball court. But let’s tell the truth, I was not the world’s greatest basketball player. I didn’t own a basketball.
When I was growing up, if you didn’t have or at least want to have a basketball by the time that you were 10 years old then you were not serious about playing basketball. Basketball was a fun thing to do with my friends. I was more serious about watching Bill Russell and the Celtics play then I was about playing the game myself.
As an athlete, my game was baseball. I played baseball or stickball every free moment that I had where I was not reading a book or riding my bike and when I could find someone to play baseball or stickball with me. In the winter, I would chop up the ice so it would melt faster so that I could play. I was a great baseball player, the best player in the neighborhood.
I could hit, run, throw, play the field and pitch. Willie Mays was my idol. I hoped to one day play professionally. We played tag-football also, that was closer to tackle football at times, on blacktop of course.
Football and basketball were fun, but I figured that I would be a baseball player, so I didn’t have to study these games.
This changed when I started playing basketball as a competitive sport in school against other teams. Then I really understood the importance of Bill Russell and his playing philosophy as I was getting older and started to incorporate it into my life both, on and off, the basketball court.
But more about that later in Bill Russell: Role Model, Hero, Activist, Legend- Part 2
Photo: Bill Russell at his first practice with the Boston Celtics